preface to lyrical ballads

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Pal. Jour., 2003, 9,1: Copyright 2003 by Palma Journal, All Rights Reserved

Preface to Lyrical Ballads, A.D. 1492: Wordsworths "Meanest Flower" and Wang Yang-mings "Principle of Bamboo as the Universal jen of Romanticism Jesse AiraudiBaylor University, AbstractAs Wordsworth complained in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads of the "frantic" and "sickly" Gothic novels of the late Eighteenth Century, so the Chinese poet-philosopher Wang Yang-ming (b. 1472 CE) complained of the "depraved and licentious," "superficial" and "noisy" productions of his era. Wangs poetry and his explanation of the poet is and what the poet does is elucidated in Instructions for Practical Living (published posthumously in 1572) parallels the poetry and poetics of Wordsworth: the epistemological foundations found in the thought of both poets results in a similar deontology. Both poets saw the dominant rationalistic philosophies of their times as false and the cause of selfishness, malice, murder, and war. To counter "what man has made of man," both poets counseled a return to nature, things as they were rather than things as the rational mind "makes" them. "Original being" or "natural piety" would free the mind and allow it to re-join the one substance or one mind of the universe, and in its atonement (at-one-ment) "dance" in harmony (jen) with all things would give a self-assuring, immediate spiritual experience, rather than the promises of the revealed, conditional religions of the time. From their belief that man and nature are one, they assumed the duty of poets to "extend" their knowledge of the Way to the masses enslaved by mind forged manacles. The universality of Wang Yang-ming and Wordsworths natural and consequent moral philosophy, evident today in the work of such poets as Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz, reveals the truth of the saying that Romanticism is older, and newer, than its name.

Like the seasons of the year, like history, truth always repeats itself. -Ameen Rihani The universality and timelessness of jen, or "dancing" in harmony with all things," and the "joy" upon rediscovery of the "Principle of Nature" as an infallible guide to authenticity of experience can be verified by comparing two poet-philosophers distant in time and place: William Wordsworth (1770-1850), the English writer of the British Romantic Period and the Wang Yang-ming, Chinese philosopher and poet of the 15th Century Ming Dynasty. Westerners know well Wordsworth's revolutionary book of poetry, the Lyrical Ballads, published in 1798, and his later detailed explanation about the revolutionary import of those Ballads in his Preface to the second edition of 1800. Although Wordsworth put a lifetime of

Preface to Lyrical Ballads, A.D. 1492: ...


memories into a magnum opus, the famous Prelude: Or, Growth of a Poets Mind (published three months after his death in 1850), the Preface of 1800 is a living record of how an individual mind had awakened from of its captivity and vowed to bring the rest of the world out of its darkness. Less well known are the comparable works of Wang Yang-ming, his surviving poetry, but particularly his works assembled by his disciples as the Instructions for Practical Living (Ch'uan-hsi lu). Together, the seemingly disparate writers reveal an astonishing grasp of the causes of human malice and error, and propose a remarkably similar poetic "rescue" of humankind, or as Master Wang taught, to "save those who are drowning." 1 Direct quotation in this study is employed to reveal the remarkable consistency in thought and tone of these two poet-philosophers despite the fact that they lived centuries apart on opposite sides of the globe, and frequent reference to other of the British Romantic poets who acknowledged Wordsworth as their philosophical leader further reveals the importance of Wang and Wordsworths thought. Finally, an examination of one of the worlds foremost poets, the NobelLaureate Czeslaw Milosz, will reveal the universality and timelessness of Wang and Wordsworths thought in contemporary terms. In 1492 by the Western calendar, the twenty-year-old Wang Yangming made an earth-shaking discovery, not of a continent or a "new" race of people as did Christopher Columbus in that year, but of bamboo. He did not discover anything new and "innovative" about it at all. It had been welldescribed and classified botanically, nor did Wang (b. 1472 CE) find any new use to which bamboo could be put. But his discovery was revolutionary not only in the usual sense that it was the announcement of something new, a metaphorical "shot heard round the world," but in the root sense of a return to a starting place, a complete 360-degree re-volution, as in the turn of a flywheel. In this sense of the word, Wang Yang-mings "manifesto" is not a "published document that aspires to be an event . . . in some sense at marking a fresh start," which "implies a rejection of older attitudes," whose "hallmark is a self-conscious air of innovation."2 Wang's true revolution was actually a protest against such "innovation." The further and further "segregations" between the things being investigated, say, bamboo tree from palm tree, but bamboo leaf from bamboo branch, and most disconcerting of all, to a radical separation between the investigator and the things he was investigating. This startling flash of discovery was the dawn of Wang Yangming's conviction that his civilization was "declining" because of a newfangled, false way of knowing, a "cleavage" between the self and the world beginning with "dissection" and ending in "murder" on a large scale. As had Wordsworth, who speaks of the limitations of "the Man of Science," Wang Yang-ming realized that, in fact, "innovation" was obscuring a profoundly live-giving old truth, precisely in the way that Husserl in our time would

Preface to Lyrical Ballads, A.D. 1492: ...


charge in his famous Die Krisis that an erroneous way of thinking was the cause of civilization's sickness in the twentieth century. 3 Wordsworths early poetry and philosophy, and that of the other poets of what later became known as the British Romantic School, claimed as much a century and more earlier. Much earlier yet, Wang Yang-ming discovered the same error when he awakening to the mind-shattering fact that no thing could be properly understood by his master Chu Hsi's empirical investigative methods. By 1492, Chus new school instruction in "innovative" systems of division and classification of things based upon their differences were rapidly replacing the ancient Confuscian doctrine of the investigation of things themselves (ko-wu). With the same sense of urgency that Wordsworth felt in his day, Wang set out to reveal the error of such reasoning, and to re-establish an ancient, universal way of thinking to rescue his sick civilization. Wang Yang-ming's teaching on the innovative deformations of primary human nature, that is, the mind in accord and not "segregated" from nature, and his "rectifications" (ko) as Wang called his attempts to return to original harmony with nature, 4 were copied down by his pupils and only published after his death. Those Instructions for Practical Living are an uncanny and instructive parallel to Wordsworth's deep uneasiness with "Our meddling intellect," that erroneous use of our faculties which "mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things," a concern which Wordsworth took pains to define in the Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads as a "secondary" way of thinking as opposed to the originary or primary function of the poetic Imagination. Both Wangs and Wordsworths conviction that human nature and the nature of even the smallest thing are a "singleness" is unshakable, affirmed by the power of deeply felt conviction rather than rational thought. Wang says that the "true secret" of being cannot be "penetrated through intelligence or intellectual understanding," but as a function of the will, as "seeing as" with the "Imagination" which, as Wordsworth says not only "modifies and endows" but "shapes and creates." 5 Wang believed that the Neo-Confucians beginning with the Sung-era teacher Chu Hsi made and promulgated the error of taking a mere method for true being; they had confused naming or labeling things with real substance. By the end of the Fifteenth Century C.E., Wang Yang-ming had mounted a protest, pointing out the rationalistic NeoConfucians reputation for "destroying later generations by means of learning." 6 The "later generations" of scholars, Wang charged, were said to be ignorantly "taking a thief to be a son." 7 Despite being so "self-confident and self-satisfied" that they were fruitful in their investigations, Wang says of them that they are "really like an owl that has stolen the rotten carcass of a rat!" 8 Yet Wang did not disparage intellectual study or the empirical

Preface to Lyrical Ballads, A.D. 1492: ...


method, except when it claimed to be the single way of seeing nature and humanity. He gives the empiricist his due: "I do not mean to neglect the names, varieties, and systems of things completely," but "I merely point out that if we know that first things must come first, then we can approach the Way." 9 In the Preface, Wordsworth speaks well of the classifying "Man of science" but, like Wang, puts the emphasis on first things first, or things as they are, unclassified and unlabeled, and only in their relationship to us and not in their use to us. In the Preface, Wordsworth "Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science." 10 However, when Science claims its investigative results to be radical knowledge, both Wordsworth and Wang protest the deformation. From the point of this discovery in 1492 until his death in 1529, Wang investigated the radical cause of the great disorder rapidly


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